Last night marked the first night of Hanukkah, and menorahs are ubiquitous here in Jerusalem. Plastic candelabras hang from the streetlights of the road near my dorms on Mount Scopus, overlooking the ruins of the Jewish temple liberated by the Maccabees in the second century BCE. With four holiday parties and a weekend trip to Safed on the horizon, I thought, now is the time to bathe myself in candlelight and kick back with some dreidel, jelly donuts, and upbeat Hanukkah-themed acapella music.
But then I received an email from Cambridge. And I am reminded that there is still darkness in this world.
Tomorrow, Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for their bizarre abhorrence of all things beautiful, is planning a demonstration outside of Harvard Hillel. This won’t be its first visit to Cambridge. Last year, the church—if it even deserves this title—brought its unique blend of hatred to the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and Harvard Law School. Its members protested the former for facilitating a gay-straight alliance among its students and the latter for helping spawn our current president, whom they consider the anti-Christ. On Friday, the WBC will continue to exercise its First Amendment rights by reminding Harvard’s Jewish population that they are sinners in God’s eyes.
In response, a group of Harvard undergraduates is planning a Surprise Absurdity Protest. Intended to be a “whimsical event,” the rally—which already boasts over 450 attendees on Facebook—will feature music, food, and hilariously meaningless faux-protest signs. This solution has been met with opposition from some who believe that the best way to deal with these crazy congregants is to ignore them entirely. But a WBC visit is a terrible thing to waste. If done correctly, Harvard’s counter-protest has the potential to galvanize the community in such an extraordinary fashion that it would far outweigh the damage wrought by paying the church heed.
Those who oppose WBC counter-rallies often do so out of concern that showering the church with attention gives the church exactly what it desires. It is surely undeniable that WBC members crave the spotlight. As it explains on its website, Westboro views the United States as a den of lust, filth, and corruption. Fashioning themselves as modern-day prophets, members of the WBC believe that exhorting Americans to repent before their wrathful and spiteful God is “this world's last hope” for salvation. Thus, as Brian J. Bolduc ’10 put it in his Crimson column last year, “the WBC [feeds] off the publicity like a cancer.”
Crucially, however, this does not mean that all WBC counter-protests grant the WBC a victory.
When these Bible thumpers come to picket, they expect to be greeted by mobs filled with scorn for their teachings, much like those that greeted the prophet Jeremiah. So when mobs like these do appear and begin screaming and hurling epithets, WBC members are emboldened, not fazed. Furthermore, the WBC literally banks on its counter-protesters turning violent. Fred Phelps has over three decades of legal experience, and 11 of his 13 children hold law degrees. Those whose emotions get the best of them at these rallies often end up paying the WBC’s travel expenses. The church, in short, both lives for and lives off of provoking its detractors.
But what if a WBC counter-protest doesn’t actually engage the WBC? What if activists ignored them entirely and instead utilized the church’s appearance as a method of strengthening communal ties and raising money for charity?
The benefits of such a positive response would offset the minimal attention the church would receive as a result. At Stanford earlier this year, for example, over 800 students responded to a WBC delegation by participating in a fun and spirited gathering designed to boost school spirit and emphasize their shared values. The Stanford Daily later opined that “the outcome of the protest was one of the most positive expressions of commonality we’ve seen on campus since we upset USC.” Similarly, rather than ignore the Westboro congregants, one Manhattan synagogue last year told people to pledge a dollar or more for every minute of their protest. After 50 minutes, the synagogue raised a total of $10,000.
True, rallies and fundraisers like these should occur regardless of the presence of a hate group. But people need a focal point around which they can direct their energies. In both of these cases, a community was able to funnel WBC’s negativity into something extremely positive, and tomorrow’s Absurdity Protest has the same guiding philosophy. So even though the Westboro members may gain some media attention on Friday, as long as we’re able to glean more light than darkness from their appearance, it behooves us to take full advantage of their unintended Hanukkah present.
So come out tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.. Don’t even look at the Westboro clan. Grab a hilariously absurd sign and a bite to eat. You’re not going to convince the WBC of anything, but you will help raise money for some great causes, make new friends, demonstrate the solidarity of our student body, and have some terrific fun in the process.
It is, after all, the season to be jolly.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House currently studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.